Should Barack Obama Place a Wreath at the Confederate Memorial at Arlington?

Update on 5/22: Quoted in Judy Pasternak’s piece at the Daily Beast.

Shistorian ociologist James Loewen and Edward Sebesta (his blog) have written a letter calling on President Obama to discontinue this practice as party of Memorial Day exercises:

Since the administration of Woodrow Wilson, presidents have sent annually a wreath to the Arlington Confederate Monument. Prior to the administration of George H. W. Bush, this was done on or near the birthday of Jefferson Davis.  Starting with George H.W. Bush, it has been done on Memorial Day.  We ask you to not send a wreath or some other commemorative token to the Arlington Confederate Monument during your administration or after.

Their letter, along with a number of signatures by notable historians, was recently published on the History News Network.  The content of the letter outlines the racial and political context of the early twentieth century by citing a number of the speeches that were given at the monument’s dedication, including President Wilson’s.  Yes, the monument is a reflection of the Lost Cause myth, which emphasizes the bravery of the men who fought in Confederate ranks.  It downplays the role of slavery as the cause of secession/war and emphasizes states rights; in addition, the monument gives expression to the myth of the loyal slave both before and during the war.  In that sense, the monument has much in common with most Civil War monuments that were erected between 1880 and the first few decades of the twentieth century.  As interpretation, I have very little problem with the content of this letter, though the tone of it is likely to alienate rather than engage the general public in an open dialog – no surprise there.

While I am sympathetic with their view of this matter, I think it would be a bad idea for Obama to end this practice.  While I do not agree with all of Obama’s policies, the one thing that I have come to appreciate is his willingness to engage constructively with those he disagrees.  The president’s visit to Notre Dame this weekend is a case in point and reflects his enthusiasm for taking on extremely complex and emotionally-charged issues in a mature and honest manner.  There are no doubt moments where the president must be decisive in making specific decisions, and this will no doubt alienate and/or disappoint others, but this man cares what others believe and even seems to be willing to amend his own outlook when presented with a compelling argument.  I value having a president who is thoughtful, who listens, and who makes me think.

My problem with this letter is that it is a non-starter.  It is unlikely to lead to anything approaching constructive dialog and it is likely to lead to increased tension and misunderstanding.  Just check out the comments section of the HNN post for evidence of this.  It’s not simply a matter of picking and choosing one’s battles, but it is also how intelligently we choose to take on certain subjects.  Under extreme pressure, President Obama has already demonstrated that he can intelligently address some of the tough questions, from his Philadelphia speech on race back in May to this past weekend’s speech on abortion at Notre Dame.  I will leave it to Loewen and Sebesta to explain what good a refusal to send a wreath to Arlington would do in the short- or long-term.

The UDC, Black Confederates, and the Manipulation of the Past

Thanks to Betty Baye for a brief, but thoughtful column about a recent phone conversation with a receptionist at the national headquarters for the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.  Apparently, Ms. Baye was invited to their national convention and decided to follow up to see if the organization included any African Americans.  The receptionist noted that somewhere between 60-93,000 blacks “served” in the Confederate army though “many” went to war as “body servants” with their masters.  Well, at least she didn’t suggest that they were soldiers, but one wonders what “many” is meant to denote or why we constantly fail to describe these men for what they were: slaves.

The author goes on to describe recent ceremonies conducted by the UDC and SCV to commemorate the “service” of black Confederate soldiers such as Creed, Cornelius, and Claiborne Holland.  I have no idea whether these men were enlisted as soldiers or just another case of sloppy research and poor analysis.  Of course a representative described their presence in the army as “patriots who loved our Southland and suffered in its defense.” Creed Holland’s great-great grandson called the occasion “a day of unification.”  Of course, I cannot say what primary sources were consulted to justify such a claim, though I am willing to wager that whatever the source it was not penned by any of the three men cited or even from the war years.  The author also cited the case of Henry Nenderson, but you can imagine my surprise when I read the following:

Kevin Levin, who regularly blogs about the Confederacy, upon seeing a photo of two white women dressed in mourning attire decorating Pvt. Henderson’s grave, wrote just last month that the women aren’t “honoring a soldier, they are honoring a slave,” who was forced to join his master and who “must be understood as an extension of a broader life story of coercion.” The United Daughters of the Confederacy and similar groups, Levin argues, “teach us nothing about the complex history of race relations in the Confederacy,” and, in fact, “are completely incapable of commemorating Henderson’s life because they fail to acknowledge him for what he was — a slave.” [Read my post on Henderson here.]

Some of you are no doubt tired of these posts on “black Confederates”, but I want to make it clear that I am not writing them for you.  My goal is to build up sufficient SEO weight to counter these ridiculous stories that hearken back to a naive Lost Cause narrative that emphasizes slave loyalty and, ultimately, the distancing of the Confederate experience from slavery.  The UDC has been distorting the history of slavery and the Civil War since the early twentieth century, but their increasing black membership is what is truly disappointing.  By involving the descendants of these men as soldiers with full military honors they are using these family members for their own aggrandizement.  No doubt, the family members involved simply want their ancestors to be remembered and to identify with a larger historical narrative.  If the UDC and SCV want to commemorate and remember the lives of these men than they should acknowledge them for what they were.  There is no shame in acknowledging these men as slaves.  In fact, in the case of Henry Henderson it only makes his life that much more worthy of remembrance.

I am going to conclude this post with Betty Baye’s own assessment:

When the black Hollands were memorialized, Virginia state Sen. Charles Hawkins, a Republican, said, “We need to come to grips with the ghosts of our past. … We need to understand this history if we are to grow and prosper.” Fine words. But some find it impossible to confront ghosts of beloved ancestors who engaged in the dirty business of buying, breeding and selling human beings — a business made no less dirty by speaking of it with gentle words; for example, calling a slave “servant,” a plantation a “farm,” and implying that slaves willingly, and knowingly, fought for a cause that, had it not been lost, would have perpetuated their bondage and spread the evil to yet more territories of a young nation. Rather, the United Daughters of the Confederacy comfort themselves with the words and imagery of Mary Nowlin Moon, who, in 1915, wrote of “a heritage so rich in honor and glory that it far surpasses any material wealth that could be mine.”  Few members today, I daresay, see any irony either in their group hosting a “silent auction” at its national convention.

From All Of Us Here at Civil War Memory, Have a Wonderful Confederate Memorial Day

From Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech“:

The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically….Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics…I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

Civil War in Texas

From Mother Jones:

It’s time for Ken Burns to dust off his Steenbeck. Rick Perry has decided to ease Texas into some kind of secessionist revolt. This was bravely put forth on the historic GOP Tea Bagging Day. So in “The Civil War 2.0” Ken can cast Perry as Jeff Davis, struggling mightily to represent his people, trying to maintain their way of life (through their winter of longing for the glory days of Bush) against the tyrannical onslaught of Yankee oppressors (led by Kay Bailey Hutchison as Lincoln). Cannon and rifles are ready and soon explode in a fusillade of tea! The war objective? Hard to tell, but there’s a governor’s race coming up. Here’s the latest poll: U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has said she plans to run for governor in 2010, leads Perry 56 percent to 31 percent among likely Republican voters, according to a poll released Tuesday by Raleigh, N.C.-based Public Policy Polling.